Morocco is like it’s own little world. I was lucky enough to visit 5 different cities and arriving in each new place, felt like visiting a new country.
I started in Marrakesh arriving in the middle of summer and 4 hours ahead of my friend, we had already planned that I would wait for her at the airport and meet our pre-arranged taxi to take us to our Riad.
Let me tell you, in case you ever have the same idea as I did, Marrakesh arrivals terminal contains not much more than a currency exchange shop and some public toilets. If there is more, then I did not see it.
Thinking I could simply venture out of the terminal and look around, and head on in again to wait somewhere for my friend, I left the safety of the air conditioned building and was almost bowled over by the intense heat of the Moroccan afternoon. I also quickly found that you can not simply re-enter the arrivals terminal. You leave, you leave forever! Luckily the departures terminal was like a little haven which even housed a couple of little nondescript cafes but most importantly air conditioning and seats.
A few hours later my friend arrived, we met our driver and our adventure began! We stopped somewhere within the Medina and our driver beckoned us to follow him with our bags. We meandered through narrow streets, with scooters beeping and zooming past us and people busily going about their afternoons.
By the time we reached the little alleyway within a maze of very similar looking alleyways, the big black door to our Riad opened and we were met by a lovely Italian woman who brought us cups of hot mint tea, a bottle of water and the usual arrival cards that we would fill out at all of our destinations. I was sweating like crazy but after a few sips of the mint tea I felt fantastic – it’s like a magic potion in Morocco. The Riad was absolutely gorgeous. I had found a selection of stunning looking places listed on Airbnb in the months leading up to the trip and found it hard just to choose between all of the Riads listed. If you are visiting Morocco, a stay in a Riad is a must! They are usually renovated houses with about 3 stories and a roof terrace. The first floor will tend to have a kitchen a small reception and a courtyard with wall sofas, a few tables and chairs and a little pool if you’re lucky. The central courtyard tends to be open with a light roof covering keeping out the intense heat of the day but letting in a nice breeze.
The rest of the afternoon was spent venturing out into the chaotic Medina and trying to find our way to the main square Jemaa el Fna. We stopped for lunch at a hotel we found and had our first tagines. The staff here were so friendly and helpful so if you’re stuck for somewhere to eat outside of the main square and souk, I’d definitely recommend stopping in here.
We eventually found our way there after a lot of random turns and wandering through the labyrinthine souk. The square is one of the most atmospheric central city areas I’ve ever experienced. It’s chaotic, crowded, hot, aromatic, loud and intimidating, however, within minutes you sink into it. There are groups of men with varieties of snakes laid out in front of them, men with monkeys dressed in all manner of clothing, Henna women, several orange juice stalls surrounded by sugar hungry wasps all adding to the fragrant air, restaurants, and lots of other merchants all yelling out to you as you walk past. It can be tiresome if you aren’t in the right mood.
Something I found quite amusing was the uniform responses many of the hagglers have adopted. When we said “No, thank you” we would often get a “Ok, maybe next time?” back. At first we went along with it just to appease people but soon found that the “maybe next time?” was a neat little tactic to keep you talking.
We also got called the Spice Girls and I think I was referred to as Fish and Chips which was quickly followed by “Lovely Jubbly” Vicki had a great way of interacting with all the shop and stall owners, ever polite and friendly but also very firm.
Around the edges of the square are entrances to the souk and other streets full of restaurants and shops. Towards the evening the square becomes even busier full of families coming out for the evening with their young children to enjoy the cooler temperature. As the sun sets the drums and flutes start and the whole area is like a massive, hectic party. We headed up to 3 different restaurant terraces bordering the square to get a different vantage point and take some photos.
Heading back to the Riad later that night was an adventure in itself. We had taken such a random and aimless path to find the square that we didn’t have a clear way back. We walked for about 30 minutes and recognised several landmarks, believing ourselves to be in the right area we just couldn’t find the right narrow alleyway! In the end we allowed one of the many young guys who had been yelling out to us to lead us back. He was pretty friendly and we chatted all the way to the front door and tipped him generously, grateful that we were finally back in the peaceful courtyard of our Riad. I took a quick swim and cooled down before heading to bed.
We realised that the next day, Friday the main day of prayer, would be a bit dead until later in the afternoon so we booked a cooking class to take up most of the day.
We headed out early on a mission to find the most direct way back to the square where we were to meet everyone. We were told to pretty much just walk straight – through the souk and not take any turns. So we did. With all the shops and stalls closed it was like a little ghost town and we got a great look at the winding paths of the souk without the usual hassling and heckling. Apart from another family that we inconspicuously followed when we thought we were lost, there were very few other people around and it was quite peaceful.
We reached Café France on the edge of the Jemaa el Fna and sat down for mint tea while we waited for the tour to pick us up and started chatting to a friendly couple next to us who we found were also booked on our cooking class. A really friendly young girl turned up and introduced herself as our teacher Kaleema and we followed her back through the souk to gather ingredients for the course. We stopped outside a small hole – in – the – wall type butcher with live chickens stacked toward the back. The butcher proceeded to select two of the live chickens, placed them on a scale in front of us and then I turned away knowing what was coming next. My friend watched the birds being killed and described the whole event to me later – they cut the chickens necks and then drained them in a bucket.
They would then place them into hot water before plucking them and wrapping the bodies up for our teacher to collect. In the meantime we went next door to an area covered with vegetables, herbs and roots and Kaleema selected tomatoes, onions, garlic and peppers. Our next stop was another little hole in the wall bakery to pick up a couple of the circular Moroccan breads. Everything is handled so casually with several people handling the bread, and placing it down on dirty counters. For a germ-phobe like me this was a little hard to watch at times.
After walking through another area of the Medina we ended up at another Riad where Kaleema introduced us to the second chef who would be taking the class. We spent the next half hour recovering from the heat, learning how to make the delicious Moroccan mint tea and chatting with our two class mates, a fascinating couple from Colarado.
The table was set out beautifully with all the herbs and spices prepared in mini tagine dishes and we were all given aprons and a little work station with a chopping board and knife. We started by chopping onions, garlic, and adding the spices and herbs to our chicken in the tagine dishes. It was all pretty straight forward and tagine really is a simple meal but it was really fun to make it from scratch with all the fresh ingredients and the instruction of proper Moroccan cooks. While the tagines were set to cook on the stovetop we made a Moroccan salad with tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices.
The result was really spectacular – the colour of the saffron and spices turned the tagine a beautiful yellow colour and lifting off the tagine lid emitted a wonderful flavour.
We left the class after about 4 hours to find that most of the souk stalls were starting to open for the day. We were on a mission to buy Supratour bus tickets for Essaouira in advance and couldn’t find the elusive ticket office which was supposed to be somewhere around the square. So we grabbed a quick taxi ride out to the new part of the city which was much different to the areas we had seen so far. The streets were very spacious and we passed by very elite looking hotels, golf courses, embassies, resorts and a mall.
We spent a few hours wandering through the souks occasionally being lured in by the beautiful shiny objects. We spent what could have been an hour in one jewellery store poring over the walls and walls of earrings, necklaces, bracelets and beads. In the end Vicki and I each bought a few things and after completing the sale, the men gestured to a couple of very elaborate looking head pieces and large necklaces and motioned for us to put them on. We rolled with it and stood at the back of the store while they took photos of us wearing the jewellery! I excitedly asked if I could hold the decorative Scimitar and Vicki was given an ornamental walking cane. It was hilarious and the guys seemed really amused by us and sad to see us leave.
We went to sleep that night, prepared for our early morning start to the Sahara desert…